It is remarkable that we are still debating the death penalty in the United States. No one seriously believes that capital punishment reduces crime. Everyone should know that it costs far more to execute a person than to keep him in prison, even for life. Prison just involves feeding a person and keeping him secure. Putting someone to death is not quick and easy.
Capital punishment involves the cost of endless appeals. Death rows cost much more to maintain than normal prison cells. Very few condemned prisoners are actually executed. The large majority die in prison or win their appeals. Many of them are actually innocent, and some are legally exonerated, at great expense to the state. Several states abolished the death penalty not for any high minded ideal, but because it costs too much.
My state, New Jersey, convicted a large number of individuals of capital murder, and kept them on death row for as long as twenty years. New Jersey paid for special prosecutors and special defense attorneys, both to promote and to oppose capital punishment. Huge sums of money were burned up in appeals. In the end, the New Jersey legislature abolished capital punishment, and all the prisoners were returned to the normal prison population. Not a single person was executed. All the money went down the drain.
So why do we still do it? The simple answer is revenge. Revenge may not be a noble idea, but it a very human one. Dale Cox, the district attorney in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, takes great pride in putting more people (mainly black) to death per capita in his district than in any other county in the United States. Cox openly acknowledges that capital punishment does not deter crime. He states plainly that the only motive is revenge, both for himself and for the people in Caddo Parish. Cox has publicly said that revenge is a revitalizing force that “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.”
I can’t say that I dislike Dale Cox. He may kill a lot of people, but at least he’s honest.
Intellectually and philosophically, I am a fervent opponent of the death penalty, for every possible logical reason. My emotional reaction is another matter. When I read about Dylann Roof, I wanted to personally strangle him for the grief that he caused the families of nine innocent people praying in church. When I saw the Boston marathon massacre on TV, I wanted to impose the most cruel and unusual punishment on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. When James Holmes was recently convicted of killing twelve Colorado moviegoers, I unconsciously rooted for the death penalty.
My mind opposes revenge but my heart craves it. I feel ashamed of myself for harboring such dark instincts. But I should be more easy on myself. The desire for vengeance is a normal human emotion, even though it is wrong.
It is for that reason that our civilized society must protect us from indulging our worst instincts. It is the job of our civilized society to control the anger of its citizens. Our civilized society should not permit us to act out our personal desire for revenge. Certainly, the helping professions should have nothing to do with encouraging the barbarism of the death penalty.